158. (George Eliot)

Six, and possibly seven, models were available for the realist novel in the nineteenth century. First, the novel of social order and disorder, in which society is an engine with efficiency and waste, or with conservation and loss (Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Zola at times; the novel of manners and naturalism are both potentially in this category–that is because this category could likely swell to fit all novels; but not all novels occupy only this category); second, it’s opposite, the historical novel in which the possibility of a shift in a social order, and the shift of how a social order views its destiny or trajectory, is presented (Scott, Stendhal, Zola; naturalism can take on a historical coloring, as in Zola’s Germinal); third, the novel of education, in which a self is formed (Flaubert, Dickens, Balzac; any novel concerned with the formation of the “gentleman”); fourth, the novel of ideas (Dostoevsky, Hawthorne, Melville); fifth, the novel of individuals in the grip of ideas or of books (Dostoevsky, Melville, Hawthorne, maybe Flaubert, and also, I’ll suggest Eliot); sixth, the novel of imperial conquest, in which civilization asserts itself against another (Kipling, Conrad); seventh, perhaps, is the novel as a time-symphony in which various experiences of time harmonize and clash (I am reluctant to include the seventh because, prior to modernism, is may be only Tolstoy who manages it)

There are of course few pure examples of any of these, and that is when they become interesting. Waverley is a historical novel but also a novel of education, for instance. Eliot often most engaging and enraging when she finds herself writing a novel that she does not want to write. Romola is a historical novel that evades history through the device of a fairy-tale or Romance; that is not a confusion about what sort of novel it is, but instead a confusion about whether it wants to be a novel. Most often and obviously, she specializes in the dominant forms of the novel in Britain: the novel of  social order and disorder, waste and loss, efficiency and inefficiency (society as a machine or creature; the difference is less significant than the fact that they both involve energy output, consumption, and some sort of running)–and the novel of education or character-formation. Adam BedeMill on the Floss, and Daniel Deronda all fit these categories.

But in these novels, she also does something slightly different, especially in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss. There, she touches, as Dickens does in Great Expectations, on the time-novel. (One reason it might not make sense to include it as a separate category is that it seems to mark quality; something strange happens with time in the best novels–but Great Expectations is not obviously a greater novel than Bleak House or David Copperfield, so I still think it a different sort of beast).

Middlemarch, too, has qualities of the time-novel–scenes where we feel that it does, though less than the other so. Ultimately, it is a novel of the first and third type (society as organism, with waste and loss, with limbs that do not receive adequate circulation etc; and also a novel of Dorothea’s formation as a person, and Lydgate’s acceptance of the burden of gentleman). It is strange because it wants to be a novel of another sort also–or rather, its characters want it to be a novel of another sort. It is also, therefore, a novel of the fifth type, a novel whose characters are in the grip of ideas.

When I first drafted this paragraph (the one you now read), I thought that a classic touchstone for a type-5 novel in the main European realist tradition is Madame Bovary. The titular character wishes to live out the life of a heroine in a cheap romance, she views herself in such a light; Madame Bovary of course is also a novel of the first and, perhaps, ever so slightly, the third type, since it is a really a novel about the social order (disparaging of it, but about it), and also of formation as a consequence of bad reading. It might be thought that every novel of the third type is also a novel of the fifth: any novel about a character’s formation must be a novel in which that character is in the grip of an idea–the idea of a gentleman, as is the case for Pip. But Pip wanting to become something is not quite the same thing as being gripped by a particular idea. Emma Bovary is consumed by her reading, and her idea for life is that she ought to live a life of a particular genre and plot. But that might be a distinction without a difference.

When I introduced the Type-5 novel about characters in the grip of ideas, I hedged and wrote “or reading.” The hedge keeps Madame Bovary mooing in the field. After all, her idea is transmitted through the word; she is a Person of the Book. Her nation is a Nation of the Book. Dickens’ was too; but Dickens, unlike Flaubert, was not a snob about what people read. The fact that her reading is silly does not prevent Madame Bovary from accepting it as if it is scripture–the way that Hawthorne’s Puritans accept scripture as an essential guide for living, or Dostoevsky’s fanatics experience of the Word of God, as if directly. Flaubert’s novel stands out from other novels about people gripped by ideas because it is not itself a novel of ideas; it could not be, given the quality of what Emma reads. Even though Hawthorne does not accept the ideas his character breathe, he accepts that they are ideas; Flaubert does not.

Now we can see how Middlemarch more than any other novel is a novel of the fifth type. It is hardly the sole novel in which characters read. Dinah is a reader of scripture in Adam Bede and Maggie reads voraciously in Mill; likewise, Romola in her novel. But, though Maggie and Romola are gripped by the passion for reading, neither is gripped by the ideas encountered in the books, or by particular ideas and the desire to live according to the Book. They remain novels of character formation in which reading plays a great role–but reading in those novels is seen as a sort of fuel usually not available to women in the machine of society; so they are ultimately of the first type. They are not novels about People of the Book, who find more meaning in words, more authority, more significance, than they ought to possess. Middlemarch is such a novel. What’s more, Eliot does not disparage the reading of several of the characters (there are hints that Casaubon’s reading is laughably astray, ignorant as he is of the German tradition that Eliot herself knew)

What is remarkable is that it does not become, as we would expect, a novel of the fourth type: a novel of ideas. Instead, it becomes a novel of failed ideas. Just as, inspired by reading to act in public, the novel does not become a novel of the second type, a historical novel; instead, it becomes a novel of failed history. The novel is populated by characters who read a great deal, who take ideas seriously, who want them to be taken seriously by others, and who believe that their reading and their ideas can be channeled into serious action in science, in politics, in religion, or in literature (Fred writes a children’s book; a sardonic small happiness in the novel’s Finale). But nothing happens. Another way of saying it is that the characters in the novel want to be written into historical novels and into novels of ideas–but they are not.

The novel ends up being an indictment of the social machinery of Victorian England on the grounds that Victorian England (Eliot suggests; and Eliot has experienced it herself) could not produce novels that did much more than write about social machinery and character formation (within that social machinery).

(An aside to antiphonal heckler: all realist novels, he says, are about the social machinery–all realist novels are of the first type. Granted, in so far as all realist novels come from, contain, and engage with social forces and functions–but it is not the case that novels could not do something else also).

George Eliot tries again to write a novel of ideas in Daniel Deronda, but Deronda’s being possessed by an idea that is itself ill-defined in the novel, and that exists beyond its closing, but that is nonetheless said to exist, elsewhere, is no less an indictment; his vague fervor to change the world is given plausible outlet only because he is a man, as Dorothea is not–not because the idea is itself any more clearly imagined–and the final suggestion anyway is that England is not hospitable to such a man; the most damning evidence against England is Daniel’s wrenching presence in the English half of the novel, in the Gwendolen-Grandcourt plot, where Eliot seems determined not to succumb to the forces of the first or third type of novel, and so sacrifices his realism.

Henry James, who understood Eliot so well, felt uneasy with Middlemarch, set it below other works by Eliot in his estimation–but perhaps, for all of his insight into Eliot, he failed to understand something essential to her situation as a writer, because it was so totally alien to his own. In his study of Hawthorne, he bewails the plight of the American novelist. Noting the “the picture he constructs from Hawthorne’s American diaries, though by no means without charms of its own, is not, on the whole, an interesting one.” He goes on:

For myself, as I turn the pages of his journals, I seem to see the image of the crude and simple society in which he lived. I use these epithets, of course, not invidiously, but descriptively; if one desires to enter as closely as possible into Hawthorne’s situation, one must endeavor to reproduce his circumstances. We are struck with he are number of elements that were absent from them, and the coldness, the thinness, the blankness, to repeat my epithet, present themselves so vividly that our foremost feeling is that of compassion for a romancer looking for subjects in such a field. It takes so many things, as Hawthorne must have felt later in life, when he made the acquaintance of history and custom, such a complexity of manners and toes, to form a fund of suggestion for a novelist. If Hawthorne had been a young Englishman, or a young Frenchman of the same degree of genius, the same cast of mind, the same habits, his consciousness of the world around him would have been a very different affair; however obscure, however reserved, his own personal life, his sense of the life of his fellow-mortals would have been almost infinitely more various. The negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed with a little ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the world, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins, no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Normal churches; no great University nor public schools–no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class…the natural remark, in the almost  lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains–that is his secret, his joke, as one may say. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the consolation of his national gift, that ‘American humour’ of which of late years we have heard so much.

But Eliot, sensitive as she was to the picturesque “thatched cottage,” would likely have dismissed James’ claim for the riches of Europe–and James himself, in his best novels, seems far less taken by them; but, to give James his due, he may have felt at least that having such a heap of objects in view, the possibility is open for the novelist to criticize them, and to register their suffocating pressure.

Eliot, at any rate, insists that what is missing from her England is just that which American novelists were forced to turn to: a literature of ideas—the necessity of ideas and the implausible, tragic, comic significance that ideas can have in life, on a life, as the subject for literature. In Middemarch, ideas are not even given the space to breathe and the nourishment to survive for long enough to live in the minds of characters; they subsist instead on the hopes and expectation of ideas, or on the promise that ideas might alight, take possession of them, and change the world.  It would be unjust to accept entirely the cute thought that Eliot wrote her novels in the same spirit—unjust because she had ideas at her fingertips, because her early life was warped and perverted by them—but fair because the novels do not, as the great novels of ideas do, make those ideas into characters, villainous and heroic, speaking in and with characters, as active as personalities in the conversations they have.

American novelists, faced with a thin social world, with a social machine not fully constructed from the same materials of the European world, compensate with just those effects–or else they attempt a novel of the second type, willing into clarity a history, from a point of rupture (the civil war), a national sin (slavery), or a geographical future (the frontier).

Maybe Eliot’s grievance against her England is well-judged; maybe the absence of novels of ideas is real, or maybe it is telling that such novels appear in disguise, not as works of realism, but as utopian fantasies; maybe the true subject would have been the violence of the Empire, and maybe it is registered in the brutality and crass opportunism of characters throughout the novels of the mid-Victorian era; or maybe Carlyle and Ruskin already lived the subject matter to which novelists could have turned–maybe Eliot felt she already had done so herself.


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